By Chris Emma—
(CBS) When the Bears huddled together with the game on the line last Sunday, they turned to rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
Ten-year NFL veteran guard Josh Sitton saw a look in his eye that inspired hope. There’s a cool confidence to Trubisky when time is waning and his team needs him.
“I love those moments,” Trubisky said this week.
Tasked with leading a decisive drive down 27-24 to the Lions with less than two minutes remaining, Trubisky didn’t have enough in his huddle. On fourth-and-13 from his own 38, Trubisky scanned his reads and saw nobody was open. He scrambled to his left, pivoted to his right, pushed forward and escaped Cornelius Washington, then made Miles Killebrew miss at the first-down marker.
Trubisky went 19 yards and kept the game alive, but now-former Bears kicker Connor Barth missed a 46-yard field goal to force overtime. That play was indicative of Trubisky’s circumstances in his rookie season – the flash of tremendous talent and instincts on display, but all for naught. The second overall pick in the draft last April, Trubisky is a pristine Cadillac on a used car lot.
On Sunday in Philadelphia, Trubisky will watch the second overall pick from 2016, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, leading the NFL’s top-ranked offense. He’ll see Exhibit A in building around a young quarterback with the right structure and supporting cast to succeed. The Eagles are 9-1 ahead of their matchup with the Bears (3-7) and boast legitimate Super Bowl aspirations with Wentz.
Together, the Eagles and Wentz have already come a long way. Theirs is a blueprint the Bears would be wise to follow.
Before Wentz became an MVP candidate – perhaps even the front-runner – he was a rookie quarterback carrying the weight of a weary franchise on his shoulders. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman had tabbed former NFL quarterback and Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson as head coach and made the move for the quarterback prospect in whom he saw franchise-altering potential. He traded a haul to move up from pick No. 8 to No. 2 and ensure Wentz would be his.
The Eagles didn’t coddle Wentz during his rookie season, despite having limited talent on offense. He was named the starter for Week 1 after Roseman traded Sam Bradford to the Vikings. He could see that Wentz was ready and that a full season of work could foster growth. Pederson knew it, too, and his offense didn’t include training wheels. As a rookie, Wentz completed 379 of 607 passes for 3,782 yards, 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He averaged 37.9 passing attempts per game.
Pederson and his coaching staff didn’t fear the possibility of Wentz making mistakes. They allowed him to operate an offense without restrictions knowing well it would set him up for success.
“As coaches, we put the game plan together and loaded his plate up,” Pederson said via teleconference this week. “At times, we did him a disservice by probably putting too much on his plate for a first-time quarterback, with all the things a starting quarterback has to do with dealing with the media and conference calls and appearances and everything that it takes to be the face of your franchise.
“Carson never once complained about it. We just wanted to make sure as a staff that we were doing right by him and keeping him coming along, and he was able to handle it and digest it. It’s just the way he is. He’s wired right that way.”
Philadelphia finished last season with a 7-9 record with Wentz showing the potential in his big arm. A standout at North Dakota State, he had a drastic adjustment to the NFL game – similar to how it is for Trubisky, who had just 13 college starts – but he handled the challenges well thanks to tremendous preparation.
Admittedly, the Eagles weren’t good enough around Wentz, so Roseman and Joe Douglas (previously an executive in Ryan Pace’s Bears front office) went to work. They added a dynamic mix at running back that would later include Jay Ajayi and signed Torrey Smith in free agency, but the most important addition would prove to be Alshon Jeffery, the game-changing receiver whom the Bears allowed to hit the open market.
Jeffery signed a one-year deal worth $14 million in Philadelphia, taking the opportunity to prove himself worthy of top-receiver money. It was an ideal match for Jeffery, Wentz and the Eagles — and appears to be a mistake by the Bears.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” Bears coach John Fox said. “That’s pretty much known. He’s a guy we liked. We did talk to him. It’s not like we were not in the mix. A lot of times they have decisions in that as well.”
Added Jeffery: “Business is business. I think it was just a better decision for me and my family, honestly.”
Jeffery is just what the Eagles needed – and what the Bears have been missing. He has hauled in 38 passes and six touchdowns, with his big-play threat making the rest of Philadelphia’s arsenal more available. Nelson Agholor was nearly cut a year ago but has now become a major target for Wentz in large part because Jeffery is drawing the attention of defenses. Zach Ertz has become a premier tight end thanks to the mismatches created in coverage.
Look at Wentz now. He leads the league with 25 touchdowns passes and has been intercepted just five times. With Ajayi now in the backfield, the Eagles’ running game must be respected the same as Wentz’s arm. In just a year, Roseman has positioned Wentz with terrific playmakers that have brought Philadelphia success.
“You start surrounding your quarterback with talent like that and it takes a little heat off,” Pederson said.
“It just changes the dynamic of your offense, where now he can spread the ball around.”
Though the new personnel has certainly benefited Wentz, his development wouldn’t have come this far without great coaching to his aide. Pederson was a strong hire to bridge the Eagles from the end of Chip Kelly’s tenure, and he brought in the right men for his offensive coaching staff.
Best known for leading the Bills to a 32-point comeback in a 1993 playoff game, Frank Reich will likely soon become an NFL head coach. He was hired as Eagles offensive coordinator and tasked with building game plans around Wentz. Pederson praised Reich for his ability to connect with players and teach the game to the point his players are thoroughly prepared. Reich has coached Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers and now is getting the best out of Wentz.
Then there’s 39-year-old quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo, who also could be a hot head-coaching name in January. The former Browns offensive coordinator has been an ideal complement to Pederson and Reich and a major influence on the success of Wentz.
“You’re seeing it in his fundamentals,” Pederson said of Wentz. “I think you are seeing it in his attention to detail when it comes to progressions and reads, understanding our offense and where guys are going to be. That’s a credit to John and keeping it real with Carson – keeping it honest, coaching him hard.”
The Bears may fire John Fox and his coaching staff at the conclusion of this season trending the wrong way. Pace would likely move for an offensive-minded coach to develop Trubisky into the quarterback they believe he can become.
Names like Josh McDaniel and Jim Harbaugh have already been bandied about, but perhaps Reich or DeFilippo would be better for the Bears after revealing their strengths as coaches through Wentz.
Wentz lined up the Eagles for fourth-and-5 in Dallas last Sunday, working in the shogun with Jeffery and Agholor stacked to the left. His team led 23-9 over the Cowboys and was looking for a knockout punch.
It took just three seconds in a clean pocket for Wentz to get Jeffery open 14 yards down field. He fired a strike between three defenders, and Jeffery displayed his trademark catch radius by stretching out for an outstanding grab before landing in the end zone. The Eagles would earn their ninth win in 10 games with a blowout of the rival Cowboys, which brought them another step closer to the NFC East title.
Such a result doesn’t happen for Wentz without the right development as a rookie, additions in the offseason and a cast of coaches to aid his growth. The Eagles have done right by their young quarterback and now have their sights set on the Lombardi Trophy.
Meanwhile, the Bears are working cautiously with Trubisky, limiting his game plan due to a lack of game-changing talent at receiver while Fox and his staff prioritize culture over their quarterback’s growth. The Bears have coaches fighting for their jobs in a critical season, which meant Trubisky went 4-of-7 for 107 yards during the 17-3 win over the Panthers back in October.
Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field brings the latest opportunity for Trubisky’s growth, facing a tough team on the road. For Fox and his coaching staff, it’s the next chance to salvage the season. Come New Year’s Day at Halas Hall, the Bears could move for an overhaul to benefit Trubisky.
If that happens, look no farther than Philadelphia for how to develop a young prospect into a franchise quarterback.